Monday 7 September 2015

What are our duties to refugees?

Encountering a moral dilemma should make us reflect on our character. What aspects of the dilemma appear salient to us? What do others notice that we fail to notice? What actions would we take and what would we feel about it? How does all this compare to the standard of the practically wise person, the phronimos?

One aspect that ought to occur to such a deliberator is the luxury of thought: while I ponder, others die. On the other hand (and is that hesitancy itself vicious?) if we do not plan, we go blundering in and make matters (and often different matters) worse...

The efficacy of a photograph is that it can cut through to our natural response: to see a dead child is to be instantly reminded of that natural response to protect the weak. But to see a dying child and to be prompted to try to save it now is one thing. To see a photograph of a dead child and to vow to save others in the future is quite different. That latter involves planning and calculation.

Perhaps the one philosophical paper which has troubled me most over the years (as a person, not academically) is Peter Singer's 'Famine, Affluence, and Morality' (here). In it (and elsewhere) Singer argues we are morally bound in the West radically to alter our lives to save those of others facing (eg) starvation. Essentially, Singer bases his argument on the commonsense principle that a small good should be sacrificed to avoid a great harm. If, by (slightly) constricting our luxurious Western lifestyles, we can save lives, we should do so. (We should probably do more than that. But we should at least do that.)

And it is this that has sat in the back of my mind since a conversation at a post-graduate conference some twenty years ago where both I and an interlocutor admitted we were convinced but... I remember the principle. I remember the conversation. And yet.

So when I see the photo of a dead child, I put on my ice cold utilitarian hat, and I see just one more, very concrete example of a problem that very few seem to worry about: that while I sit here with my extraordinarily materially comfortable lifestyle, all round the world, others live in desperate circumstances. I don't know whether letting in 1000 refugees to Scotland is a good thing or not. (Who are they? What are the alternatives? Are there better alternatives? Isn't the constant desire to rescue people from their own countries and bring them to the only place where life really exists properly (the West) itself deeply suspicious?) But I do know that whatever happens to the thousands who might enter Europe, the millions left struggling in the Middle East and elsewhere won't disappear, except from our jaded awareness.

All this reflection leaves me nauseated by myself and frankly nauseated by a lot of the virtue signalling or callousness of the public debate. As something of a valetudinarian, I'm not even going to pretend that I would invite another family to share my home on a long term basis. I've given more to charities, but it's almost nothing. As I've said, even to stop and think about the issue seems an unpardonable luxury.

While living with this uneasy conscience, two things. First, Aquinas. Singer as a utilitarian neglects a proper view of human flourishing. The strong utilitarian case (according to Singer -and I think he is right here for a consistent utilitarian) ought to be that we reduce our wealth to the point that marginal utility is equalised:

The strong version, which required us to prevent bad things from happening unless in doing so we would be sacrificing something of comparable moral significance, does seem to require reducing ourselves to the level of marginal utility. I should also say that the strong version seems to me to be the correct one.

But we are not and should not be utilitarians. So the deeper, correct view is going to take into account other considerations such as those sketched by Aquinas (STh IIaIIae q.117, a.1) here:

Reply to Objection 1: According to Ambrose (Serm. lxiv de Temp.) and Basil (Hom. in Luc. xii, 18) excess of riches is granted by God to some, in order that they may obtain the merit of a good stewardship. But it suffices for one man to have few things. Wherefore the liberal man commendably spends more on others than on himself. Nevertheless we are bound to be more provident for ourselves in spiritual goods, in which each one is able to look after himself in the first place. And yet it does not belong to the liberal man even in temporal things to attend so much to others as to lose sight of himself and those belonging to him. Wherefore Ambrose says (De Offic. i): "It is a commendable liberality not to neglect your relatives if you know them to be in want."

 Reply to Objection 2: It does not belong to a liberal man so to give away his riches that nothing is left for his own support, nor the wherewithal to perform those acts of virtue whereby happiness is acquired. Hence the Philosopher says (Ethic. iv, 1) that "the liberal man does not neglect his own, wishing thus to be of help to certain people"; and Ambrose says (De Offic. i) that "Our Lord does not wish a man to pour out his riches all at once, but to dispense them: unless he do as Eliseus did, who slew his oxen and fed the poor, that he might not be bound by any household cares." For this belongs to the state of perfection, of which we shall speak farther on (Question [184], Question [186], Article [3]).

In essence, we are not required always to adopt Singer's utilitarian principle of sacrificing lesser goods to greater ones if we have a particular relationship to those benefited by those lesser goods (eg ourselves or our families).

Secondly, and apparently (but I think not really) in tension with that, there has to be a change of heart. Father Zossima's injunction in the Brothers Karamazov that we see ourselves as responsible for everything and everyone is not an algorithm: it could be applied to motivate the sort of neo-con interventionism that has probably done much to bring us to where we are now, But equally, unless we cultivate on a regular basis the understanding that all humanity is in this together whether or not we have recently seen a photo of some disaster or not, any chance of a genuine long term improvement in others' lives is minimal:

There is only one means of salvation, then take yourself and make yourself responsible for all men's sins, that is the truth, you know, friends, for as soon as you sincerely make yourself responsible for everything and for all men, you will see at once that it is really so, and that you are to blame for everyone and for all things. But throwing your own indolence and impotence on others you will end by sharing the pride of Satan and murmuring against God. [Here.]

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